Sunday, November 14, 2010


I was looking through IUCN’s Species of the Day list and found something adorable. It fits the two facial features that define “cute”—big eyes and a short snout. Unlike most members of its group, it has been known to play by grabbing vegetation and trailing it behind itself as others give chase. It exhibits curiosity with man-made objects. It has a cutesy name that sounds like an embarrassing nickname.

It’s a six-foot long shark.

Image by Steven Campana

Where the Porbeagle (Lamna nasus) gets its name no one is quite sure. The commonly cited combination of “porpoise” and “beagle” seems awkward to me, but there are a number of other etymological theories to pick from. They are built for speed, with crescent tails for powerful strokes, keels on the base of the tail for balance, and large gills for better efficiency. These adaptations help them chase after mackerel and other schooling fish to eat.

Their playful antics have been widely documented. They play tag using kelp, as mentioned above, as well as playing catch with driftwood. They will also poke at fishers’ balloon floats, and appear to be confused when they pop. The phrase “mindless killing machines” is so frequently thrown around with sharks, but the Porbeagle’s actions are causing a number of shark experts to question that concept. Other sharks (including the infamous Great White) have been described as “curious,” but they only have one tool with which to explore the world, and it’s filled with enough teeth to turn the object of their curiosity into mincemeat.

Despite their potential danger (see previous statement regarding teeth and mincemeat), the Porbeagle hardly attacks anyone - ever. The International Shark Attack File lists 5 total attacks, fatal and non-fatal, from the Porbeagle in 2003. Compare that to the Great White Shark with 244 fatal, unprovoked attacks. In fact, looking at the rest of the list, anything with fewer attacks than the Porbeagle either have no teeth, are impossible to find, or are too small to be a threat to humans. The infrequency of attacks may be due to the fact that “if the water is warm enough for you to be swimming, it is too warm for the porbeagle,” but it seems that this is a very docile shark.

One place the Porbeagle will fight ferociously is on a fishing line, and for good reason. Overfishing in the north Atlantic caused population crashes that devastated not only the shark, but the fishing industry that created the problem. These incidents have led to regulations to limit Porbeagle catch. Earlier this year, CITES set trade regulations in place to help save this playful, docile “mindless killing machine.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Dirty Little Sea Kraits

(Alternative title: Krait Expectations)

It seems that media attention of non-charismatic species is growing. I recently had an interview with a French news site, which can be found here. Also, my wife (I’m still getting used to saying that) has taught me how to needle felt. Remember how I complained that there’s no such thing as a plush Lamprey? There is now. I would like to make more plush EUTs, but I need suggestions about which ones to create. Please leave suggestions, and I promise you’ll see them by the next post.

Image by Ryan Photographic

The Rennell Island Sea Krait (Laticauda crockeri) is like most other Sea Kraits in many ways: it uses its wide paddle tail and venomous bite to hunt fish. On the other hand, it is smaller, not striped, and, oh yeah, doesn’t live in the sea. Instead, they’re found in the brackish Lake Tegano in the Solomon Islands.

I suppose I should back up somewhat. Sea Snakes are exactly what they sound like—snakes that are well-adapted to marine life. They have large, oar-like tails for propulsion, smooth scales for less drag, big long lungs for hours of underwater hunting, and potent venom for easy hunting. Because of these traits, most of them hardly ever make it on to dry ground. Sea Kraits, however, are the least aquatically adapted of the Sea Snakes, with rougher scales and smaller tail fins that allow them to manage better on land.

Due to the small size of the range of the Rennell Island Sea Krait—that is, half of a small island in the South Pacific—it is automatically considered Vulnerable by the IUCN. However, the minimalistic human use of the island has helped keep the area pristine. While there is tourism, it seems to stay within the realm of nature observation with little impact on the ecosystem.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Plague of Locusts

I’m sorry I missed the end of August, but I was kind of getting married, so I hope you’ll excuse the late post. Since I just moved to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan1, I decided I needed to write about a local Endangered Ugly Thing. Meet the Lake Huron Locust (Trimerotropis huroniana)

Image by Thomas Bentley, via

This locust is a drab-looking grasshopper, and not one to stand out in a crowd. It’s about an inch long, slate grey, and looks like a large number of related insects. The biggest characteristic that sets them apart from other grasshoppers is their habitat. Instead of living in thick grasses or dense woodlands, they live on meagerly vegetated beaches. There, they blend in with the sand and eat the sparse grasses that grow there.

Like most grasshoppers, male Lake Huron Locusts use the familiar melodic (or grating, depending on your preference) chirping to attract a mate. They also add an aerial element to their ritual, flying up in the air, snapping their wings to make a crackling noise2. Eggs laid in the summer hatch the next spring, and mature in time to start the cycle again.

One of the largest threats to the Lake Huron Locust is the creation of summer homes on the dune habitats where these insects reside. This irks me, as the “summer” here lasts approximately from mid-July to mid-August. Protecting the dunes and the vegetation found there is the most effective method to keep these little locusts alive.

1This is properly pronounced “da U.P., eh?”
2Does it surprise you to know that entomologists have a name for this? It’s called “crepitating”.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Black and White and Red All Over

This marks the 100th post on this blog. To celebrate, I intend to do something a little different from what I’ve done in the past. For this month’s species, I’ll be writing about an animal widely considered to be one of the cutest around. It has become China’s golden child and the face of the World Wildlife fund. I am, of course, talking about the Giant Panda (Ailuropoda melanoleuca). While previously thought to be halfway between bears and raccoons, recent evidence puts them squarely in the bear family. Keep that in mind as you read this, as there is a depth to these animals that isn’t widely publicized.

The idea that Pandas eat only bamboo isn’t too far from the truth, as it makes up the large majority of their diet1. However, they are not above enjoying carrion if they happen to come across it. This is beautifully illustrated in this ARKive video, where a Panda saunters up to a rotting deer carcass, rips off a leg, and sits back to enjoy his meal. There are even reports of a wild Panda killing sheep, though it didn’t eat any of them.

Carnivory is one thing, but surely aggression isn’t a trait of these cute fuzzy-wuzzys, right? I’m sure that’s what went through mind of the drunk man who jumped into a zoo enclosure to give Gu Gu the Panda a hug, right before Gu Gu bit his legs. Or the teenager that scared Gu Gu into biting his legs. Or the man who jumped into Gu Gu’s enclosure to retrieve his 5-year old’s toy. Guess what happened to him. “Not so Cute” or “Not too Cuddly” seems to be the response of reporters on incidents like these. How surprised would we be if these had occurred with a Grizzly Bear? This is just an increasingly frustrated animal trying to defend its territory. The story is likely the same for the Panda in this video, attacking a man sitting outside its enclosure.

While it may seem like I’m trying to vilify the Panda, it's only to prove a point. I’ve got nothing against scavengers, or even dangerous animals. But the Giant Panda just dropped a few levels in the cuteness scale in the last two paragraphs, didn’t it? I’ve got all sorts of tidbits that could make any Charismatic Megafauna seem less charismatic2. Putting an animal on a pedestal just makes it that much easier to knock off, and turning an animal into a symbol makes you forget that it’s an animal. All creatures have behaviors that humans aren’t fond of, but we can’t expect them to act like giant teddy bears. While conservation efforts have helped the Giant Panda in the wild, over-exposure of the “cute” version of their life has left more and more people bored by its plight. The solution, as I see it, is to spread the exposure around to any other species that could use the help. Which is where I come in, I suppose. I hope I’ve managed to achieve that since I started this blog.

I really want to thank all of my readers who have stuck with me through these one hundred posts. I also have to thank my fiancée and my parents, who have helped with editing and ideas, but far more importantly have completely and utterly supported this fool idea of mine for four years. Thank you.

1 All bears are omnivorous, but the meat to veggie ratio depends mostly on the availability of the food.
2For example,
Gorillas and Lions will commonly kill the young of competing males. Chimpanzees and Dolphins commit murder of their own species. Black Rhinoceroses have the highest rates of death from fighting each other than any other animal. I could go on.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Night on Bald Mountain

My fiancée has had a deep-seated dislike of non-human primates for a long time. So when she told me to look at this ugly monkey she saw on the ARKive front page, I was doubtful of its ugliness. I was wrong. It looks like the gremlins from, well, Gremlins (Use this picture for comparison).

Image by Dominic Wormell

The Brazilian Bare-Faced Tamarin, or Pied Tamarin (Saguinus bicolor), is unsurprisingly found in the Amazon basin in Brazil. Like most tamarins, it spends its time avoiding predators and eating fruits, tree sap, and small animals. They live in small groups, with between four and fifteen individuals.

Their group structure is a reverse harem—the alpha female gets to mate with whatever male she likes. Most tamarins give birth to twins, and the Pied Tamarin is no different. Dad takes care of most of the child rearing (other than nursing, of course), with the other subordinates helping out. The whole group sleeps in one big pile, which I’m sure would be adorable if their faces didn’t look like gargoyles’.

There is one main unanswered question I have about the Bare-Faced Tamarin—why is it bare-faced? What purpose does a hairless face serve? It’s not like these guys bury their head in carcasses, like storks and vultures. My guess, which is only a guess, is that it may have something to do with keeping their head free of parasites. The problem with this theory is that they groom each other, meaning that other members of their group should be able to help with the nit picking.

As far as their status is concerned, the Pied Tamarin isn’t doing so well. They are considered one of the most endangered Amazonian primates due to their small, fragmented range coupled with the constant rainforest destruction we’ve all been hearing about for the last decade. Primate conservation programs, as well as captive breeding programs are working on keeping this goblin-faced monkey around.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

My Hovercraft is Full of Eels

A spokesperson for EDGE e-mailed me, hoping to get me to plug their fundraiser. I think they do a great job of informing the public about strange animals, and could definitely use your £2 (about $2.88 if the online conversion calculator is correct).

This month’s animal I found after I discovered that the IUCN Redlist highlighted a new species every day. Looking through past Species of the Day, I saw some familiar faces1, and a few new ones. One that caught my eye, featured in January, was the European Eel (Anguilla anguilla).

Image from the BBC

The lifecycle of the European Eel is confusing, surpassing many arthropods in complexity2. Spawning and hatching take place in the Sargasso Sea, the same area that makes up the Bermuda Triangle. As transparent, ribbon-shaped larvae called leptocephali, they eat whatever plankton is available to them. As they grow, the Gulf Stream carries them to the coast of Europe, where they metamorphose into round, but still transparent larvae called glass eels or elvers. Once at the coast, they migrate en masse up rivers and streams. Videos of this seem reminiscent of something you might have seen in a health class.

After finding their way upstream, the eels gain pigment and size in a third metamorphosis, after which they are called yellow eels. Here they spend their time eating small arthropods and growing. Then after a number of years (between five and twenty) they undergo a fourth metamorphosis to adulthood (finally!), gaining larger eyes and a silvery coloration, all the better to survive the open ocean3. However, they have to get to the ocean first, and they will even cross land to get there. Eventually, they find their way back to the Sargasso Sea, mate, die, and the process starts all over again.

There is one main cause for them to go from not listed in 2006 to critically endangered in 2008. They’re delicious. They work as sushi, as soup, smoked, and even as pie. There are eel farms, but those only collect the glass eels and raise them from there. Breeding is still done the old fashioned way, and if that doesn’t increase along with the increased global demand, they will be literally eaten up.

Research into captive breeding (read: more effective farming) is ongoing by fisheries who don’t want to see that size of a drop in a main export. Please don't read that as bitter, as industry support is one of the better methods of conservation. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has set up a program known as Seafood Watch, which educates the public on which seafood is sustainably harvested, and which is being overfished to death. So, watch what you eat.

1 These are some featured animals from the last year that have been posted here: the Goliath Frog, the Vancouver Island Marmot, the Indiana Bat, the Sailfin Lizard, the Brown Hyena, the Boreal Felt Lichen, and the Chinese Giant Salamander.
2Though, their lifecycle isn’t quite as confusing as Malaria. To be fair, I’m not sure I’ve seen any lifecycle as confusing as Malaria.
3Wikipedia says that they lose their stomachs at this stage. I couldn’t verify that anywhere else, but it wouldn’t surprise me. A number of insects do something similar: the larva’s job is to eat; the adult’s job is to breed.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Groundhog Day

Greg, also from Not Extinct Yet, suggested that I write about the Blobfish. I really wanted to write about the Blobfish. If there’s any animal that could use a space on this blog, it’s the Blobfish. There’s really not enough information out there about it to get a full post out, though. My fiancée has been (strongly) suggesting a different animal since the Olympics in February. It’s somewhat cute, but in the end, it’s just a big Groundhog.

Image from Simply Wild Canada
Image from Simply Wild Canada
The Vancouver Island Marmot (Marmota vancouverensis —that’s a Road Runner & Coyote scientific name if I ever heard one) has been cut off from the rest of the mainland Marmots since the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago. Like many rodents, these Marmots hibernate during the winter. Unlike most rodents, that hibernation lasts eight months. Even during those brief summer months, they spend most of their time in the burrows, coming out only to feed, lounge on rocks, and goof off.

Being a rodent of smallish stature (the standardized size comparison seems to be "a large house cat") predation is a fact of life for the Vancouver Island Marmot. Cougars, Wolves, and Golden Eagles all find the Marmot to be a tasty treat—no wonder it spends most of its life underground. Also being rodents, they have a high reproduction rate, where babies made in May are out of the burrow by July. A single female can produce about 15 young in her life.

This high reproduction rate may save the species. Man-made habitat changes decreased their naturally low population numbers almost to the point of genetic collapse. It was estimated that there were 21 wild Marmots in 2003, the rest (75 or so) in breeding programs in zoos and conservation centres. That breeding program has been remarkably successful, as they have released a total of 223 Marmots since then. Yes, some of them have fallen victim to predation and other natural deaths, but the wild population is up to about 120 now, and the captive population is steadily growing.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Look Out For Mr. Stork

I’ve wanted to write about the Marabou Stork for a long time. It is amazingly ugly. It has a bald head, except for minimal scraggly hair. The giant, pointed beak, perfect for ripping into large African carrion, is the color of decaying bone. There is only one reason that it hasn’t appeared on this blog yet: it’s not endangered. Amrita from Not Extinct Yet has saved me though. No, she didn’t go and shoot enough Marabou Storks to put them on the list1. She found the Greater Adjutant (Leptoptilos dubius) which is closely related enough the Marabou Stork to fill its place on Endangered Ugly Things.

Image from MangoVerde
Image from MangoVerde

The Greater Adjutant hails from Southeast Asia, roosting near wetlands that teem with its prey. What kind of prey? Whatever it can catch. Insects, crustaceans, frogs, fish, carrion, rodents, even slow ducks. Much like the Marabou Stork (and the vultures they compete with), the ugly bald head is a great adaptation for shoving one's face deep inside a rotting carcass2.

Their large nesting colonies form in leafless trees around these wetlands during the dry season. As the water recedes, the aquatic animals this stork preys on are that much easier to grab. The Greater Adjutant uses this abundant resource to produce their eggs, and feed their hatchlings. I can't find any pictures of young Adjutants, but they can't be any uglier than the adults. Come the rainy season, they migrate to other wetlands in Northern India until the next breeding season.

The draining, clearing, and general messing-around-with of wetlands in the area has left only two breeding populations of these giant birds. One is in Cambodia, the other in Assam, India. Between these two areas, there are less than one thousand individuals. Along with the destruction of their habitat, the eggs and adults are also hunted, presumably because there's a lot of meat on a four-foot tall bird.

The Greater Adjutant is protected in the areas in which it's found, but enforcement is not always up to snuff. It seems that there was a big push to stop egg collection, which helped increase Adjutant numbers the next year. Hopefully these conservation efforts will continue to keep these magnificent, if horribly ugly, birds around.

1 I’m imagining the IUCN listing—Threats: Conservationists.
2Think about eating a bowl of jello without your hands. Wouldn't that be so much more pleasant if you were bald?